Sometimes it is only by leaving a city and venturing into the wilderness that we realize how oppressive noise can be. In pursuit of the American Dream we put up rampant construction work, vrooming car engines and the hubbub of city life. It is evidently a nuisance but is it actually harmful? Does it really cause illness? Is there anything we can do to combat it?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has listed noise pollution as a serious threat that causes hearing loss, cognitive impairment, stress, depression and cardiovascular issues. Some studies even indicate that noise pollution is slowly killing us. Les Blomberg, the founder and executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse told the New Yorker “if you could see what you hear, it would look like piles and piles of McDonald’s wrappers, just thrown out of the window as we go driving down the road”. If you’re interested to see how noise can vary within a city itself, check out this interactive noise map of Brussels created by Karim Douïeb.
New York City, one of the busiest and most populated cities in the world, tracks noise disturbances through their 311 civil complaints service. In nine years, from 2010 to 2019, the civil complaints agency recorded over 2.7 million noise-related complaints. This averages out to 834 complaints every single day which is far higher than any other type of complaint. Why is the high level of complaints alarming? Well, the noise actively causes people’s stress receptors to flare which in turn damages their blood vessels. This was proven by a 2018 study by the American College of Cardiology which tied noise pollution to increased cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure, heart attacks and heart disease.
Hearing loss is a more predictable side-effect of noise pollution and that too has been studied. Miami Hearing Technologies conducted hearing tests on 200,000 people worldwide and plotted the correlation between loud cities and hearing loss. The study proved the hearing of people living in noisy cities had declined up to 20 years beyond their actual age.
Research estimates that over 70 million people in the US are exposed to noise levels that exceed the cautionary limit recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But what exactly is this limit? Thomas Münzel, a doctor at Mainz University Medical Center, believes any noise above 60 decibels can negatively impact our heart function. To put it in perspective, moderate rainfall is measured at 50 decibels, a car is 70 decibels and ambulances are 130 decibels.
Road traffic is one of the biggest contributors to noise pollution. Dr Yutong Samuel Cai, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London states that long-term exposure to traffic sounds affects people’s blood biochemistry which leads to illness and is even more dangerous than the petrol fumes themselves. Dr Cai also believes consistent exposure to traffic noise can be a catalyst for type 2 diabetes and depression as well.
An obvious way to reduce noise pollution in your city is to stop driving personal cars. We’ve written about the financial and environmental benefits of going car-free before (hyperlink the ‘on the road to debt’ and other relevant articles) but noise pollution provides yet another reason to look at alternative modes of transport.
If you need to drive for commuting purposes then consider carpooling with people who have a similar commuting pattern (hyperlink carpooling’s comeback article). If you ride with others instead of alone it will save you gas money and reduce the number of cars, and therefore noise, on the road.
Biking is another mode of transportation that reduces noise. Replacing the roar of car engines with the gentle whir of a bicycle would have an immeasurable impact.
Ultimately, reducing noise pollution needs to come from government policy but we can all help combat the problem by opting for less harmful modes of transport. By taking our bike instead of revving our car, we can move towards more peaceful world that will help our health in the long run.